George F. Will: Will New Jersey send a Republican to the Senate?
“This human nature is shabby stuff, as you may know from introspection.”
— Peter De Vries
Or from reading the “public letter of admonition” sent by the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Ethics to Robert Menendez, the Democratic incumbent seeking a third full term representing New Jersey. Nationwide, Democrats are defending 26 Senate seats, Republicans only nine. Five Democratic incumbents are running in states that 21 months ago experienced Donald Trump swoons: He won Missouri by 18.6 points, Indiana by 19.2, Montana by 20.4, North Dakota by 35.7, West Virginia by 42.1. In New Jersey, which Hillary Clinton carried by 14.1 points, Menendez was supposed to be safe.
The Republicans’ most recent presidential victory in New Jersey was in 1988. In the subsequent seven elections, the Democratic presidential candidates’ average margin of victory was almost 13 points. This state last elected a Republican senator (Clifford Case) in 1972. This 46-year drought might end in November.
Robert Hugin, 63, grew up in blue-collar Union City, as did Menendez, with whom Hugin served as student representatives to the local board of education. Hugin became the first in his family to graduate from college (Princeton), served 14 years in the Marines (his two sons are now officers), then went into business, rising to run a pharmaceutical company. This sin, although scarlet in the overheated public mind, might be less so than Menendez’s transgressions detailed in the letter.
With hilarious understatement, James Madison, who was not known for hilarity, said, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” A unanimous Senate ethics committee (three Republicans, three Democrats) in its April 26 letter to Menendez said: “By this letter, you are hereby severely admonished.” Menendez, the letter said, brought “discredit upon the Senate” by the following:
“Over a six-year period,” Menendez “knowingly and repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value” from a friend (an ophthalmologist who, the letter did not say, is currently appealing a 17-year sentence for $73 million of fraudulent Medicare billings). The gifts included air travel on private and commercial flights, a luxury hotel stay in Paris (the committee’s letter is demurely silent about Menendez’s accompanying girlfriend) and 19 visits to a Dominican Republic villa. He neither publicly reported, nor received written permission for, these gifts. In addition, the committee said, Menendez improperly intervened with federal agencies with “persistent advocacy” for his friend’s business interests.
New Jersey Democrats — they outnumber Republicans by nearly 900,000 — powered Menendez to a 19-point victory six years ago. In last month’s primary, however, his opponent won 37.8 percent of the vote while spending next to nothing — not enough to require filing any financial statement. In October, he was underwater, 19-59, in a poll about whether he deserves re-election. Today, polls show Menendez with small single-digit leads, but Hugin’s brass-knuckle ads are saying things like this: “[President] Obama’s Justice Department said [Menendez] belongs in jail.” The department brought a 14-count felony corruption indictment, which resulted in a nearly three-month trial that did not convict Menendez. The government then decided against a new prosecution.
Hugin might be hindered by the Republican tax cut, which limited the deductibility on federal income taxes of state and local tax payments. This particularly hurts residents of high-tax blue states such as this one. The 10 percent of New Jersey voters affected are affected substantially because property taxes are very high.
This election will test whether voters think that being a luridly indiscreet (this is a discreet way of describing Menendez’s behavior) senator is less objectionable than Hugin’s guilt of association with the pharmaceutical industry whose products help to give millions of people sufficient longevity and vitality to nurse grievances against the products’ prices.
George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.